Family Life in America
Th. Bentzon (Marie Thérèse Blanc)
[Translated by Sarah Orne Jewett]
Nothing is more difficult than to give an opinion of a country where we have received hospitality, and especially a hospitality so incomparably warm and generous as that of America. Whether we praise lavishly or venture to blame, two perils threaten us - the danger of being blinded by remembered benefits, and the possibility of failing to fulfill the most elementary obligations of good breeding. Commonplaces or ingratitude, we escape the one but to fall into the other, and perhaps it would be wiser to say nothing at all.
If, however, one decides to speak, the only road to follow is the perfectly clear path of sincerity and good faith. This course I have pursued throughout the long series of articles, published during 1895 in the "Revue des Deux Mondes," upon the condition of woman in the United States. 1 These articles reflect what I have seen, while I have tried to avoid rash conclusions, the justice of which no traveler, after six months of wandering in a new world, would reasonably care to assume. These random notes, in spite of their inevitable short-comings, have excited a very great interest in France, and, what is of far greater importance, a generous emulation. I speak frankly, having no reason to be modest upon this point, since the success achieved is entirely due to the subject treated. During the course of this publication, now ended, nothing has touched me more than the kindness of the American press and the sympathy expressed by those individuals whom, not without a certain anxiety, I had introduced to the public.
But the intelligence of American women apparently enables them to hear without irritation whatever is said of them, if it be said in the spirit and solely for the sake of truth; they know how to look at things from another's point of view; I believe that they are even capable of making use of the mistaken judgment of a foreigner, discovering in the sources of his error material for instructive comparisons of the education, character, and national prejudices of the two peoples. Convinced, after this delicate test, of the absence of narrow-mindedness among my American friends, I shall speak to them of themselves with even less fear than when I discussed them behind their backs, so to speak, - to the French public.
This question has been put to me: "What do you think of family life in America?" And again I shall reply without evasion.
Whatever has made our own love and happiness must seem of more value than a state of things which interests our neighbor, but which we ourselves but half comprehend; for if there be a point upon which the differences of sentiment and organization are completely and strongly marked in the two countries, which otherwise have many traits in common, it is this of home life. The family, despite the ferments of transformations which have, little by little, been effected by contact with other nations, reminds us still, in Latin countries, of what it once was in Rome. Certainly paternal authority is no longer unlimited, as it was in the days of old; it is not even what it was in France before the Revolution, when a father's will alone was sufficient to shut a daughter within convent walls or a son behind prison bars; but although it rests now upon fewer recognized rights, it is still very strong. The father is still, in the full significance of the term, the head of the family to such a degree that the truth is revealed, to those who look deeply in the matter, that in the young republic which aspires to be the France of to-day there is still throbs the heart of the old monarchy, armed with divine right. Everywhere the family is the prototype of the nation, and the French nation has the same inalienable habits of administration, subordination, hierarchy, and direction, even in those crises when she seems to wander farthest away from all regard for these things; she has, pre-eminently, a social instinct which demands a distribution of parts, so to speak, in the interests of a harmonious whole, to which each one must contribute his share according to the measure of his capacities.
It is recognized in France that the father's duty is to govern and provide for his household, to increase the inheritance left him by his ancestors and the dowry brought him by his wife, or, having neither, to supply the family needs by his own exertions. Upon the mother rests the responsibility of household affairs; this is her particular and well-defined domain, together with the education of her daughters, which she conducts to her own liking; usually keeping them under her personal influence, guarding them like little children until their marriage, which is proposed and arranged by the parents. The career of the son is likewise a subject of deep concern to all the members of his family, who do not hesitate to influence the young man in this or that direction; opposing what seems to them an unwise vocation and giving him, except in are instances, as little opportunity as possible to depend upon his own judgment and capacity.
There is in France a constant exchange of consideration and protection, which has seemed to me scarcely to exist in the American family, - where the individuality of each member asserts itself from the cradle, where each one is astonishingly eager to follow an independent career and to assume the responsibility of his own destiny. In America I have been struck by the absence of that unity of the family, as we understand it: that willingness of some (who are usually women) to sacrifice themselves for the comfort and pleasure of others, that desire to remain united at all costs; and my first impressions were these: - the almost insolent triumph of youth, the boldly advertised domination of woman, the effacement of parents and their lack of authority over their children, the apparent coldness of their reciprocal relations, or, where this was not the case, a certain affectation in emphasizing it, as though it were something quite unusual. I have therefore been greatly surprised when I have heard Americans who have lived a long time in France, assert on their side that the mutual relations between parent and child were on the contrary less affectionate there than in America. Besides this, we French - everybody says it of us and it must therefore be true - have the least sentiment of any people in the world. I had always believed that whatever of sentiment we possessed was concentrated, to a degree almost unknown elsewhere, in the intensity of maternal love (a thing easily explained by the infrequency of love, marriages, in the real sense of the term, which are contracted in France), and that this adds to the maternal devotions so much the more of emotion, - nay, passion. Ah well! I am mistaken, it seems; the union is much closer in America. I have not only heard this said, but I have read it in excellent books. Yet, I cannot help protesting. I begged for explanations, - proofs. "Do you know many families in France?" I ask, and they answer, "You do not have the winter-evening readings in your French home circles"; "No," I reply at once, "because we have conversation; we talk with one another, which prevents reading aloud, and to give another reason, we do not read together because the books written for our children are not generally such as would interest older people."
"Are your children brought forward as prominently there as ours are here?" some one asks me. "Have they as important a place in your homes as we give them in ours?" "No," I should say in reply, "because with us the laws of good breeding demand, on the one hand, that the children shall be strictly guarded and constantly directed, and on the other, that they shall be taught not to annoy any one, not to put themselves forward; and so they learn early that they are not to be noticed. If we speak of them as little as possible, it is because we consider the I in conversation hateful, and since our children are ourselves, we rarely discuss them. But this is a point of breeding. The bottom of the matter has not been touched by such considerations." These misconceptions of French life, however, put me on guard against my own first impressions of American homes, and especially in regard to the expression of sentiment.
I reflect: We on our part consider the Anglo-Saxons much colder than ourselves because a voluntary moral restraint has taught them a much greater degree of self-control; and they find us lacking in feeling, because we imbue the expression of our feeling with our native qualities of tact and moderation. The acting of American or even English players seems to us excessively and singularly emphatic; the acting of French actors seems to Americans to leave too much to be divined; we are grateful to our novelists for avoiding a moral which has been repeated to us a hundred times, for sparing us the commonplace of a purely conventional plot. The plot of a French novel is only a pretext for the expression of ideas and the development of characters. Americans demand in advance of their writers of fiction - and they have excellent ones - that they tell them stories in which the wicked and the virtuous reap as they have sown. For this reason, by the way, their family readings in the evenings are more easily arranged. What does all this prove except that they are young and we are mature, - a truth which in many ways is very apparent. Now, it is natural in immature civilizations that everything should be sacrificed to those who represent progress, hope, intense life. Hence the license of children and young girls, the insignificant part played by older persons, the hasty putting away of the dead, the absence of that reverence at the grave which is so marked in an old European country which, though chilled by centuries of growth, still pays respect and still honors and regrets what has gone, finding consolation for the threatening uncertainty of the future in the splendors of the past.
This harshness of a merciless youth is of course much more strongly marked in the working-classes; "l'homme du peuple," as one calls him in Europe, has the advantage in America of more education but much less refinement of behavior. One can scarcely realize the mutual affection and devotion that exists among this same class in France. M. Zola has succeeded in lending a coarse and brutal physiognomy to the peasants of his "La Terre," by concentrating in a single village all the crimes committed in the whole republic during a number of years. It is this exaggeration and agglomeration, this trick of producing fine but extravagant results, that one may observe in the description of that impossible garden in "La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret," where flowers of all seasons blossom at once. In spite of the greed, the worldly covetousness, the inordinate attachment to whatever he inherits, which characterize him, and notwithstanding the deplorable ambition he has lately developed to make a citizen of his son at any cost, - the real French peasant, with his good and his bad traits, is much nearer in point of resemblance to "George Sand's" idealized portraits than to those fantastic caricatures that the most powerful of our realistic writers has made of him. Those who have come in contact with, and have closely observed, the rustic life of our people, have found there some beautiful traces of the old patriarchal manners. One cannot realize, I repeat, how many old parents, living in the poorest attics of Paris, are tenderly cared for by children whose first duty is their comfort, nor how faithfully the ties of blood are held between brothers and sisters, how religiously the law, "Bear ye one another's burdens," is fulfilled by people who have otherwise no religion. On the other hand, it has seemed to me that in America when a man enters upon his career, he becomes absorbed in his individual interests to the exclusion of all others: brimming over with physical energy and pre-occupied with personal affairs, he soon loses regard for home ties, which are broken by absence and a life of adventure.
Speaking of American women, the "homes" and "clubs" for the working classes among them, so excellent in themselves, must, it seems to me, necessarily tend toward the dissolution of the family. They often secure the welfare of the individual only by uprooting her from her natural surroundings. The general striving after instruction, the frequent contempt for needlework and other humble occupations of the household, must of course separate the poor girl from her own people and class; and all that she gains intellectually in the "struggle for life" does not always strengthen her in the homely quality of goodness of heart; instruction that fosters ambition is not the education that elevates the soul, and may sometimes even become its worst enemy. It is especially important in a working family that each member should be content to be nothing more than a wheel in the clockwork, contributing his best efforts to maintain the regularity of the whole. But what would become of American individualism if it had to play such a humble part in the machinery? The aversion to domestic service, and consequently the recognized need of servants, sufficiently proves a general rebellion. There is no country, on the contrary, where the family, including the servants, are so closely united as in France. And yet, not only in America, but in all countries where English is spoken, they pity us because we have no expression for that intimate and delightful word "home," which occurs so constantly with them!
In vain do we tell them many times over, that if we have not the word, we have the thing in the highest degree, the real home being the unity of family, which is elsewhere more scattered. It is true that the home in France does not always mean a separate establishment such as the poorest individual who has a drop of Anglo-Saxon blood is ambitious to possess. The isolation of the family within walls that shelter it from all promiscuous association, and defend it from intrusions, contributes surely to its privacy. To be ranged, one over the other, like cells in a beehive, in apartments that may be taken by the year and as easily abandoned, is a subject of horror to Americans. They see in this sort of establishment little more than a perch: une installation sur la branche, which surely ought not to frighten those who in their turn enjoy hotel life. But as Emile Augier says in verse that deserves to be simple prose: "The tavern does not harm the home."
It was perhaps in Philadelphia that I felt most fully the force of that sentiment which surrounds the American home and the influence it may exert upon the morality of a nation. This city has, I was told - and its aspect justifies the assertion - a greater number of small houses than any other, and has instituted a philanthropic movement designed to give to the poorest of its citizens the opportunity of becoming in a few years the owners of their homes. I have never, perhaps, felt such veneration in viewing the splendors of European palaces, as filled me when I beheld the modest relics of the ancient State House and those great institutions which prove what noble pains Philadelphians have taken to develop art and science in their city; not excepting industrial art, in honor of which no more magnificent temple has been erected than the Drexel Institute. Yet, aside from its University and its learned societies, it is as "the city of homes" that I remember Philadelphia.
To whatever class a man may belong, it is a blessing if, in the hardening struggle for existence where so often leads him for away from home surroundings, he is able to fix his thoughts upon the permanent abiding-place of the family, - the home fireside, where on the holidays children and grandchildren may gather around the parental table once more. If one has ever had the good fortune to be admitted to one of these family re-unions in America, the recollection of it is forcibly recalled by each recurring date: Thanksgiving, the cheerful holiday, enjoyed by all classes, rich and poor, young and old, when the inevitable turkey and mince-pie are eaten with gratitude for benefits received during the year; Christmas with its traditional tree, the season of merry-making and exchanging of gifts, when pine-boughs and mistletoe and red-berried holly wreaths adorn the walls and hang at the windows; Easter with its symbolic lilies and beautiful custom of flower-giving and all its joy and gayety! Nothing in France gives the least idea of all this. On such holidays, in America, the most hardened and degraded prodigal son must smell from afar the odor of the fatted calf roasted in honor of his return, and be impelled in spite of himself to go back to his father's house. I must say here, in passing, that in France the prodigal rarely strays beyond Paris. In America he goes to the Far West, for the same species of swine do not herd in the boulevard and the backwoods: they suggest very different reflections.
But, to continue, never have the paternal roof and the least of its relics been so treasured and so much dwelt upon as among Americans. We French are not travelers and rarely leave our homes. That which one has at hand is always of less value than that which is enhanced by the magic of distance; and so the people who are the greatest worshippers of home are, it may be noticed, always traveling, and their adoration of these homes does not prevent them from letting them by contract to strangers while they themselves try a camp life elsewhere. Nothing is more opposed to French prejudices than such a proceeding; a Frenchman would consider his household gods desecrated, if they had no other protection than the walls of a hired apartment. I might with a slight variation repeat the proverb, "What is truth on one side of the Pyrenees is error on the other." There is another point of difference which it seems to be all in favor of the Americans, - the doors of their homes open so much more readily in the name of hospitality. We seldom suspect the impression that a city like Paris makes upon foreigners "who know it only from the splendor of the streets," as a distinguished American lady once said to me, "because its doors are so closely shut." The reception we give foreigners is, I may say, merely external; we do not know how to put ourselves at the disposal of strangers from the other end of the world, treating them as friends at first sight. Besides, we draw into our shells with a sort of suspicion. It is this very exclusiveness, by the way, which gave birth to our "salons," which are nothing more than cliques.
Leaving the shell let us pass to its inhabitant; instead of the home itself let us speak of the family which dwells there, and let us begin, if you will, with him who is called the head.
The father is, as a general rule, very different in America from what he is in Europe. He does not expect to meet with such blind submission, nor does he feel himself bound by so narrow duties. He is not obliged to give his daughters a dowry, for instance. He can let his native city profit by a share of the fortune he has made, without his sons ever thinking of grumbling at the expensive founding of some establishment for the public good. It is their affair to get rich by their own industry, and in their turn to perform acts of good citizenship. The American who inherits a ready-made fortune often loses those fine qualities that I have hailed in him with admiration; enterprise, pluck, grit, incomparable will-power - he then resembles the sons of our aristocracy, except that he bears his leisure with less elegance. But nothing has struck me so much as to see of how little consequence a father of a family can be, in his own house, in certain circles in New York, for instance. I have visited houses where he seemed only to have dropped in by accident, as one might say, evidently at a loss to recognize most of the invited guests, and yet showing himself most hospitable with the good-will of his hand-shake and his smile, and repeating, almost as if he did not know to whom he was speaking, that everlasting, trivial phrase "Glad to see you." The magnificent house showed great luxury, the source of which was evidently the incessant effort of this man who worked for others and provided for their pleasures so lavishly. In other places I have attended large dinner-parties given in the absence of the master of the house. The liberty in this respect is general: this or that one of the sons or daughters accepts an invitation without troubling himself of herself about a reception at home that night, and no one even thinks of making excuses. Each has his friends, his social duties, his separate existence, and disposes of his time as seems best to himself. Self-sacrifice, if perchance it showed itself, often seemed to me to meet with an indifference that was not very encouraging - nor does one sacrifice one's self unless one be the father of the family, who certainly practices self-immolation to an unusual degree. He often works in harness at home, while his family passes years in Europe leading that purely worldly life which the American colony in Paris exhibits to us, all under the pretext that traveling develops the young people, that Miss Mary needs to catch the pure French accent, that Miss Sally must cultivate her musical talent in Germany, that the nervous prostration of their mother demands a change of climate. And with what satisfaction does the good man speak of the good time, the success, the progress of these absent ones, whose expenses he defrays without stopping to count them!
This is purely American. I believe, for my part, that one greatly exaggerates the necessity of running to all points of the compass in pursuit of knowledge and health. If one is born in a country which forms a continent in itself, one can find all the necessary change, so far as physical health is concerned, by going from the north to the south, from the mountains to the sea. It would be the advantage of rich and blasé Americans to refresh themselves from time to time by the good provincial customs; to return to those living springs, not only of their democracy, but of their true moral greatness; without counting even the many European things they would find in certain out-of-the-way villages in New England and in certain other corners of the West, to which some of the old Puritan stock have transplanted themselves. There they would find fathers of families who have preserved the Old-World ideas of authority, and housewives as we understand them. The South also holds great surprises of this kind.
As to the intellectual culture of which Europe is supposed to be the home - the means of instruction certainly are not wanting now-a-days in any of the great centres in America. He who demands them only from the Old World is behind the times or follows a custom dating back to those old times when the United States had no academies, no colleges, no art collections, no museums. I know very well that I may by told that the feeling for beauty can be acquired only in Italy, and I shall hardly dare to reply that this pretended feeling has very often seemed to me nothing but a rather cheap varnish of ready-made opinions. It was probably something like this pretence which suggested to "Mark Twain" his jokes about the art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
I have often found a great charm of originality in certain Americans who had not traveled, while the annual pilgrims to the land of Art (with a capital A) have, with rare exceptions, repeated to me very much the same things. And the want of variety in the choice of pictures or reproductions of statuary which adorn their houses, always rich but surely showing little individual taste, is a proof of blind following and lack of discernment. A good deal of pretension in the women is the result of this entirely superficial education in art. I have seen a pretty woman, who knew that the expression of her face became easily pathetic, don, without any hesitation, the turban of the Cenci to be photographed in; another, with purely Greek features, accentuated them by having her portrait painted as dressed in the classic peplum, the fillet in her hair, and the clasping one knee with a pose worthy of a Phaedra or Medea. They would all gain if they remained simply themselves, bright and gay Americans, - if they talked of their own literature, which is so rich, instead of dilating by preference on Villon, Mallarmé, or Verlaine. They are brighter than any other women in the world, quite naturally so, and I do not know why the father of the family should be so anxious to add this brilliancy by pilgrimages to Europe in which he does not take part.
They seem to think, besides, that he is only fulfilling the duty he owes them by acting thus. One whom I congratulated on being immensely indulged by her adoring parents, answered calmly: "Yes, certainly, they watch our development with much interest." The idea that they might think of controlling or even merely of directing this development would never have entered her head. The thought of individual liberty is indeed constantly present in the mind of the father of the family, as it is in the mind of those who are supposed to depend upon him. He has his share of this liberty, as I have already said. Law allows him to dispose of his property as seems best to him, to make his will as he pleases; at the same time it obliges him to take into account the natural rights of each one of his children, in the gravest decisions. The father understands that they can all follow their own vocations, that his son, a mere boy, will fly out of the home-nest, that his daughter will marry according to her own choice, even should it be done imprudently. Without trying to control their religious faith, he will also give them the example of a religious spirit, which is easy enough, by the way, in a country where each variety of Christianity can find a label to fit it, and where the multiplicity of sects lends itself to the broadest exigencies of the free discussion. In praise of America, be it said, the practice of religion is never reduced by men to the function of leading-strings, useful in guiding the uncertain steps of women and children. The father is, or seems to be, in religious fellowship with his family, and this union in the Christian faith surely makes up for much of the superiority of which we boast. The wrong side of the medal, the drawback, in America is perhaps a certain hypocrisy. Alas, where does one not find this untruthfulness and false appearance!
It is fortunate if it helps to strengthen salutary constraint, without which all liberty becomes license. The avowed communion in the faith is certainly the most powerful and most officious bond which can bind the family together; besides, this union is sometimes, even in other respects, closer than I have said - another proof that it is dangerous to generalize. If the American business man (and his kind predominates) is almost invisible in his own house, where he expects his wife and daughters to represent those elegances and refinements of which he hardly has time to think except when he pays for them, other classes of individuals, which exist in America as elsewhere - all students for instance, lawyers, physicians, artists, scholars, - are very much less absent from their own homes, and exercise by their mere presence a kind of authority which escapes our notice because it is not proclaimed. I have never seen anything more touching or more perfect than the communion of certain fathers with their unmarried daughters. The intellectual life they shared made them friends by choice, and one can understand that this friendship, without tyranny on one side or dependence on the other, can make the young girl seem so exacting on the question of marriage that she does not care in the end for any other companion but this beloved master, whose support she becomes in her turn when old age touches him. To understand better what I say, I refer my readers to Miss Sarah Orne Jewett's novel, "A Country Doctor," which is written with such largeness and at the same time with such restraint.
Shall I dare to express my whole idea? The severe education that the American girl receives agrees especially with those who afterward choose celibacy. The single woman in the United States is infinitely superior to her European sister; free from the fetters that often make the French old-maid so pitiable and ridiculous, she does not, like the latter, expect to gain liberty by marriage, - on the contrary, by marriage she would lose that perfect independence which allows her to cultivate herself more and more, to rise into a larger sphere than that of the family and even of the ordinary social circle, by consecrating herself to works of universal interest. Her intercourse with men, freed from the childishness of flirtation, bears a stamp of quietness and freedom which allows real and serious intimacies that no criticism could assail. One sees no bitterness, no regrets. Her lot is too beautiful, her life too full, in spite of the natural satisfactions renounced - nay, perhaps just on account of that renunciation. Let there be, however, no misunderstanding. If it seems indispensable to me that the woman who, for some good reason or other, does not marry, should find some sphere for her activity, I severely blame the systematic scorn of marriage which comes to many young Americans who are ambitious to be somebody, to do something, to distinguish themselves in a career, and to escape from the common ways. With these pretended vocations there are often mixed a childish vanity, a morbid idea of creating a sensation, of singling one's self out; and obstacles are most useful in proving their real value. Colleges, if made too easily accessible, may, it seems to me, do much harm, and seriously injure family-life by drawing young girls away from it at an age when they ought to take their share in domestic duties. On this point, too, one must say that everything is good or bad according to the way in which it is used, and the spirit in which it is conceived. It is naturally the unmarried women or widows who take a leading position in philanthropic associations and the many clubs, agencies, and the like, which have helped so much to enlighten, elevate, and instruct the population of cities. When the mother of a family devotes herself with the necessary fervor to such objects it always seems to us in France that she must be obliged to neglect some of the essential duties which, according to our way of thinking, must bind the wife to her hearth-stone. But perhaps we have not taken into account that devouring and almost feverish activity which enables an American woman to manage well so many enterprises at once.
If I had been questioned about the American mother before having been in the country several weeks, I should have run the risk of making far more silly remarks about her than now, in spite of whatever hurried travelers may say about the penetration and freshness of first impressions. My first impression, I confess had been, that the school usurped the functions of the mother and that she left her children to its mercies as soon as they had learned to speak, thus renouncing all responsibility for their physical and moral, as well as for their intellectual education. That would have been a great exaggeration. The American mother is not, like the French one, wholly absorbed in her daughters; these receive an education very much like that of their brothers, but brothers and sisters return after school-hours, and maternal solicitude has all the time every means of exercising itself. A very intelligent woman, whom I told that our conventionally trained girls mostly confined themselves, under their mother's wing, to following private or public courses of lectures, said with surprise: "But how can they bear to miss having their boy and girl friends? The solid and really intimate friendships are formed at school. It is there that our daughters go through their apprenticeship for life. Without this initiation your young people must be sadly unfitted at their entrance into the world. The mother who brings up her daughter alone takes a very great and proud responsibility, but she can form her only after her own image and it seems to me that in a short time these two inseparables must make themselves too necessary to each other. Isn't it serious enough to choose a husband for the poor child? Do you really refuse her also the pleasure of choosing her own friends?"
"They could only be girl-friends," I answered, "co-education is unknown with us."
As we talked together I understood that the part of the mother of a family is perhaps a more delicate one in America than in France, just because there the power of the mother is not that of an autocrat, because she does not direct and rule everything herself, because there are many things in her daughter's life which she does not think herself authorized to prevent, and which she has to bear, while exercising a discreet vigilance. She advises without constraining, and under the gravest circumstances she has to limit herself to an appeal to her daughter's reason, without ever counting on passive obedience. It is certainly simpler to mould, like soft wax, a will that gives itself up without resistance. It is just the feeling of this unlimited authority over her daughter, of the good and the wrong she may do her, of her rigorous duty to this utter helplessness, which binds the French mother so passionately to her second self, - whom she has formed without any other influence, admitting even girl-companions unwillingly, and on her guard, beforehand, against the future husband who would take her treasure from her. These relations are being modified since the introduction of a certain cosmopolitanism into our customs; but what exists everywhere with us could not be found in America, where the young bird, of either sex, escapes from the maternal wing as soon as its feathers begin to grow.
Neither have I ever seen anything that resembled those warm effusions of tenderness, that enthusiastic confidence, which exist with us between mother and son. This explains itself in a country where men are so early taken hold on by the realities of life. I certainly admire the vigor and enterprise of the average American boy, his way of starting out, almost without looking back, to conquer the world, and so having a vastly greater field of action than our French lads. Though his motive power is very often the desire for money, I do not mind, since he earns this money himself instead of expecting it from the accident of a legacy or a wife's dowry; but it is certain that long separations, business cares, violent competition, the inveterate habit of "self control" produce (at least on the surface) a certain hardness, which makes impossible the kind of intimacy between mother and son that always charms and surprises foreigners living in France. For this intimacy more "womanliness" is needed in the man than usually exists in the "muscular Christian" in America, and on the other hand a knowledge of life in general and of the masculine being in particular is necessary in the woman, but quite incompatible with the American ideal of "womanliness" which seems to us a little artificial. This ideal consists really in systematically ignoring what is quite evident. However guarded a life a Frenchwoman may have lived - when she marries she knows many things the more emancipated American constantly refuses to admit. She knows that as man is exposed by his nature, his education, and the wear and tear of life to more dangers than herself, she cannot expect in him exactly the same delicacy and the same purity that he demands justly from her. Ready for all sacrifices and all devotion that may guard him, she yet only half counts on that absolute faithfulness, in which she herself cannot be wanting without forfeiting her honor. A defensive instinct makes her very clear-sighted as to passions and inclinations that have to be checked. If intelligent Americans, such as I have met, should affect, before her, to believe in the same moral practice for both sexes she would smile, as she is apt to smile, not cynically but with sad resignation, at such conventional fictions as "an only love, a broken heart, etc." She knows that the absolute and the definite abound more in novels than in real life, the complex shades of which do not escape her; she is not satisfied with mere words. She is also capable of giving to her husband, son, or brother advice that no American son, brother, or husband would ever ask from the woman of his family. These have another system, which is perhaps as efficacious in its way; and I suppose they try not to lower themselves in the respect of women, who expect so much of them.
But there is a greet deal of conventionality in the relations between men and women in America, and the foreigner who travels in the United States is more struck with it than with anything else. In France one meets more sincerity in this respect, a sincerity coupled with common sense, which is the reason why a book like "The Heavenly Twins," for instance, makes no other impression than that of bad taste, exaggeration, and nonsense. Nor would the Frenchwoman, who is the least disposed to tamper with vice, ever understand the indignant stupor of the mother of Pendennis, when she discovers that her son, a gentleman, could have had anything to say to a little milliner. The Americans, on the contrary, - and be it well understood that I do not speak here of that ultra fashionable set which makes a profession of being blasé, but the Americans who represent our middle-class, - seemed to me to be still living in those happy illusions of Mrs. Pendennis. I believe there are no women on this earth more calmly sure of the fidelity of their husbands, and there are probably in fact more happy marriages in America than anywhere else. But I also think - if I may be allowed to say so - that a happy union in France, though much rarer, ranks first just because there can be no question there of that equality of which Tennyson says, -
"Let… this proud watchword rest
Of equal; seeing either sex alone
Is half itself…"
Not when women of the house pursues her individual way apart from that of her husband, instead of using her intelligence to understand, help, and compliment him, can that divine union be produced: -
"Purpose in purpose, will in will, they grow,
The single pure and perfect animal,
The two-cell'd heart, beating with one full stroke,
To me - a Frenchwoman - the true reign of the wife and of the mother seems to consist in the unremitting accomplishment of a thousand small things. It is this, perhaps, which keeps woman from that continuous devotion to one idea, from which, according to Buffon, the works of genius are born. But she who, as an exception, has a work of genius in her mind will be forced to let it out even if all the fine meshes of the net woven around her should have to be torn. The work of genius of the others, of the majority, will be a faultless household. It is well not to disgust young girls with that, and my view may appear founded on routine - but it is also founded on human nature, which it is never wise to oppose. If girls in France are brought up a little too exclusively with a view to please their future husbands, the Americans are perhaps too much concerned with the purpose of personal development, and both systems have their inconviences.
As to morals, properly speaking, it is quite evident that in a society where flirtation is allowed, on principle, only to girls and where the demi-monde has only the coarsest equivalents for it, temptations must be less strong and less frequent for that sex which in this respect is really the weak one. Besides, in spite of the honorable privileges which she enjoys, woman certainly does not, in an existence swallowed up by business and relieved by sport, occupy that immense place which she fills with us in the mind of man. I believe besides that a certain number of puritanical convictions are still ruling American society as firmly as ever. To suppose that society is more virtuous in one country that in another would be very simple-minded; but nowhere will society give us those specimens of model families which we are seeking. If we speak of it for a moment, however, I should say, that even in that elegant and frivolous world such situations, of which one makes a vaudeville with us, such as "Le Plus Heureux des Trois," are very rare in the United States. For that reason, persons who have a taste for such things gladly cross the ocean to profit by the liberties that are offered by old civilizations, and often exceed the bounds which such civilizations authorize.
Of course one suspects in America, as in England, that the moral condition in France is deplorable, and injurious to the dignity of the family. On the other hand, one does not seem to know in the least that flirtation transplanted from America into certain Parisian circles inspires in us a horror equal to that with which Puritans severely regard sin, because we do not see in flirtation the excuse of an irresistible passion. Flirtation is a constant transgression of the law: "Thou shalt not play with love." In its native country it may be rendered inoffensive most of the time by the temperament and the habits of those who give themselves up to it. It all depends on the partner one has in this game, - on the conventionality on which one rests, - on the education which has prepared us for it. Co-education radically modifies the elements that enter into the future intercourse between men and women. It tempers maidenly shyness on the one side and passion on the other, it clothes the young girl in an armor of assurance and fills the young man with reserve and respect. I believe that it has, at the bottom, a better effect on him than on her.
Long habit prevents most of the inconveniences that we should expect. From the kindergarten onward, the future woman learns to guard herself, and receives from her masculine comrades those protecting attentions which they will show toward her all her life. I imagine besides that the American woman, even the somewhat fast one, becomes more prudent than our skepticism would admit, when she has no chaperon to protect her temerity. This chaperon, whose presence permits a young lady to dine at Delmonico's in male society, is chosen in such a way as to have nothing in common with the "inconvenient third." Left to herself the young lady would be even more safe, and I have heard good judges disapprove of this innovation as one liable to abuse. Does not this prove that customs which have descended through generations had better be kept up and that, if the Americans do not gain anything by going back toward the duennas, we should do well in France, for the same reason, not to advance too quickly on the road opened up by the bachelor-girls?
The class of American girls which deserves our interest still more, belongs - and there are many examples - to that intrepid and somewhat hard type which Henry James has painted in his "Portrait of a Lady"; - Isabel Archer, so eager to know everything, so little curious to know what it is to love! The best of them are wanting in humility, that humility which belongs to tenderness. They are self-possessed to a degree of which we cannot conceive, with a foundation of dryness and inevitable egotism. One must lay the stress on this double fault, instead of harping, as one does too much in Europe, on the worst sides of a most objectionable flirtation. This is just as much out of place, by the way, as the charge of wickedness which is brought so often in America against the matrimonial customs of France and the novels that are supposed to portray them. I for one am inclined to consider flirtation as an equivalent, - a somewhat coarse, heavy, exaggerated equivalent, - of French coquetry. The liberty which a young girl enjoys in her father's house does not necessarily cause her to flirt, with or without a serious intention, and this is, I repeat, because she does not need to marry, as the French girl does, in order to cease being a charming nonentity. She goes out, reads what she likes, receives and pays visits at her pleasure. This can only scandalize those who have not been in America, and who do not know how ungentlemanly every importunate or sentimental attention is considered when offered to a young lady in a car or in the street. For this reason the girl looks the men in the face with a calm boldness that is almost defiant.
As for books, there are no vicious ones, that is to say, none that descends far into the depths of vice. American girls have therefore no literature apart from the rest, - one writes only for them, even if art should lose! They come first even before art. Verlaine and Villon, you ask? Even they are purged for their use; all the lions have their claws cut and their teeth drawn for the greater security of these young ladies. They strike the key-note of conversation in society, and the young men probably profit less than they would do with us, by a tête á tête to which they are accustomed. The arrangement of rooms almost without any doors, with looped-upportières everywhere, allowing an even warmth from the furnace in the most modest apartments, makes it possible for Mademoiselle to receive her male friends without excessive privacy. Of course these privileges are used or abused according to the good or bad manners, the tact or vulgarity of those who possess them, according to the influence of the surroundings, the more or less refined habits of the world in which they live; they may be used only with discretion, but in no case would one dream of contesting these privileges of youth.
To resume: The American family is less homogeneous than the French family, less united in the same interests, less blindly submissive to the authority of a head, who does not feel himself tied or constrained by such narrow duties. One finds much less formality there, than with us. Long before going to America I heard a lady from the West say in connection with all the fuss necessary in France before any one can be married: "I have no certificate of birth. All my father did was to write the name of each child on the first page of the family Bible, as soon as it had come into the world!"
The regulating of what with us is called a "faux mènage," a free union, the position of an illegitimate child, - all that is much more easily managed in America than in France, because the question is not how to avoid at any price the intrusion of an illegitimate child into the patrimony and the name, or how to protect the feudal stronghold of the family, but rather to gain a victory for those eternal rights of the individual. There is perhaps a danger in France that we may arrive at too complete a forgetfulness of our fellow-men through too great a love for our own family; many women especially perceive humanity only very vaguely outside their own household; in America public spirit fills a large place in the woman's heart beside the more elastic duties of the wife and mother. As to the man, he is a citizen in a way that has no value in France, where military service is still the chief expression of patriotism. He usually thinks himself bound to acts of filial devotion toward the State to which he belongs, toward his native place, toward what we call le clocher. One will have to arrive by degrees at a wisely defined care for public interests, which, so long as none of the property-holders neglects his common duty, is equal to the vaster but much vaguer and easily eccentric humanitarianism of Tolstoi. The great social questions that force themselves on the whole world will oblige all nations to consider more and more seriously those words of Christ, who, disregarding his own household, pointed to the people and said: "Behold my mother and my brethren." Every one of the property-holding classes is in duty bound to help the people, and America understands this much better than Europe; she is in advance of Europe on this point as on many others. The example she gives will grow and cross the seas. The type of the American family is very likely the one that will at last prevail: the laws of progress, the better recognized rights of women, the necessity for our men to expatriate themselves, to leave the exhausted Old World where their activity no longer finds occupation and to scatter themselves abroad, the growing influx of foreign customs - all this heralds it.
Besides its form of government, we have already imported from America that great dissolvent of the old organization of the family - divorce; we already discuss the advisability of standing armies, and the right to perfect freedom in making one's will 2 has numerous advocates. Already the "interview," long unknown, and abhorred merely by reputation, steals into the most carefully guarded homes and accustoms the people who were till now most jealous of the privacy of their lives to the unhealthy notoriety of the newspapers; already lycées for girls rise up against the home education, which had before lessened the importance of convents. Our girls are getting comparatively emancipated; they have even reached that ungrateful period of emancipation, where one wields but awkwardly the weapons one has learned to use too late. At balls the young ladies are no longer taken back to their mothers, who have ceased to mount guard over them, sitting like wall-flowers around the ballrooms. Unmarried ladies of thirty or thirty-five decide to go out alone and to read books that are allowed without question to a young married woman of eighteen. It is a slow but sure revolution. A certain prejudiced class still remains recalcitrant, but it will soon have to follow suit.
I hope all the same for that some centuries yet we may keep certain heritages of the past - our deference to old age, our respect for paternal advice, and that tenderness for a mother that is like a religion. I hope progress will leave us a tolerance for each other's tastes, the polishing away of those angles of the personality that are too sharp, and a good share of that spirit of self-sacrifice which may be called nothing but foolishness, though it is a sacred foolishness of a most heroic kind. I should like to keep, besides, that healthy feeling, till now instilled into our women, that experience is above all systems, that our instinct is a power not to be suppressed, while it ought to be directed, and that certain things felt quite naturally by them, are more precious than what may be acquired by learning. Their grace, their charm, their true beauty, depend on nature; pedagogy does not suffice for everything. Men would be unhappy, without exception, if the type of the learned and strong-minded woman should destroy that of the housewife, which ought not to be incompatible with it. Neither wealth nor learning allows a woman to leave to her servants, even if they should be perfect, the smallest duties of the mistress of the house. Husbands, fathers, brothers of all countries, are sensible of the care that their wives, their daughters, and their sisters take of those every-day trifles that contribute so large a share to the comfort of existence. A woman of genius, Mme. de Staël, has said: "A trifle makes or ruins happiness." This is as true in the material as in the moral world. Let us wish therefore that the women of our Old World may lift their minds more and more above their distaff, but that they may never lose sight of the distaff all the same, - that symbol of so many sweet and touching things which nothing more ambitious can replace.
With these reservations, I for one shall be delighted to see our French society - that is to say, our French family of to-day - become more and more Americanized.
Original Editor's Notes
1 Since published in book form by Calmann Lévy, Paris: Les Américaines chez elles."
[ Back ]
2 In France a man may, according to law, will one fourth of his fortune as he pleases, but he must leave the rest to his immediate family. - Translator.
[ Back ]
Additional notes for current edition.
"Family Life in America" by Th. Bentzon (Marie Thérèse Blanc) and translated by Sarah Orne Jewett appeared in The Forum (March 1896, pp. 1-20). According to Richard Cary, the essay originally appeared in Revue des Deux Mondes in 1895 (Cary, Sarah Orne Jewett Letters, 99). A note (above) with the Forum text indicates that Bentzon's series of essays on women in the United States was published in Paris in a collection, Les Américaines chez elles.
[ Back ]
reap as they have sown: See Job 4:7.
[ Back ]
l'homme du peuple: the man of the people, the common man.
[ Back ]
M. Zola ... "La Terre": Émile Zola (1840-1902) published La Terre (translated as Earth) in 1895.
[ Back ]
La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret: Zola's The Sinful Priest or Abbé Mouret's Transgression appeared in 1879.
[ Back ]
George Sand's: George Sand (Amandine-Aurore Lucille Dupin, Baronne Dudevant, 1804-1876) was a productive French novelist, remembered also for her love affairs with the painter Alfred de Musset and the pianist-composer, Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). She wrote a number of novels about French rural life.
[ Back ]
Bear ye one another's burdens: See Galations 6:2.
[ Back ]
une installation sur la branche: Jewett translates this as a perch.
[ Back ]
Émile Augier: Émile Augier (1820-1889) was a French playwright, including L'aventurière, adapted in 1869 for the English stage by Thomas William Robertson as Home: A Comedy in Three Acts.
[ Back ]
State House ... Drexel Institute ... University: The State House in Philadelphia is better known as Independence Hall, built in the 1730s as the State House for the Colony of Pennsylvania. Here took place the adoption of the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the framing of the Constitution of the United States (1787). The Encyclopedia Britannica says that Drexel University in Philadelphia, "was founded in 1891 with a donation from Philadelphia businessman and philanthropist Anthony J. Drexel. It was originally known as the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry. In 1936 it became the Drexel Institute of Technology, and in 1969 it adopted the name Drexel University." The University of Pennsylvania, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica "had its roots in the Academy of Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1751.
[ Back ]
Thanksgiving: Thanksgiving is an annual holiday celebrated in the United States on the fourth Thursday in November. It originated in three days of prayer and feasting by the Plymouth colonists in 1621, although an earlier thanksgiving was offered in prayer alone by members of the Berkeley plantation near present-day Charles City, Va., on Dec. 4, 1619. The first national Thanksgiving Day, proclaimed by President George Washington, was celebrated on Nov. 26, 1789. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln made it an annual holiday to be commemorated on the last Thursday in November (Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia).
[ Back ]
Christmas: Celebration of the birth of Christ in Christian cultures, usually between 25 December and 6 January.
[ Back ]
Easter: Celebration of the resurrection of Christ in Christian cultures, falling on the first Sunday after the first full moon after 21 March.
[ Back ]
prodigal son ... fatted calf: See Luke 15 for the parable of the prodigal son.
[ Back ]
salons: In this context, the term seems to refer to the 18th and 19th-century French custom of prominent women opening their houses at specified times for artists, intellectuals, and other guests to gather and converse.
[ Back ]
Mark Twain ... jokes about art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance: See Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910) The Innocents Abroad (1869).
[ Back ]
the turban of the Cenci: Beatrice Cenci (1577-1599), according to the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, "was an Italian noblewoman, whose life is the theme of much art and literature, including Percy Bysshe Shelley's tragedy, The Cenci (1819). Grossly ill-treated by her father, Cenci plotted his murder with her family. After a much publicized trial, the conspirators were executed."
[ Back ]
peplum: Dictionary definitions identify this as a short section attached to the waistline of a blouse, jacket, or dress. It is possible, however, that she refers to peplos, a garment worn like a shawl by the women of ancient Greece.
[ Back ]
Phaedra or Medea: Phaedra, wife of Theseus, in Greek Mythology, falls in love with her step-son, Hippolytus, and suffers a tragic fate when she reveals her passion. Jean Racine (1639-1699) tells her story in his famous play, Phèdre (1677). Medea, in Greek myth, is an enchantress who helped Jason obtain the golden fleece and then married him. When he proves unfaithful to her, she kills her children by Jason. See Euripedes (c. 484-406 B.C.) play, Medea. In Ovid's (43 B.C. - 17 A.D.) Metamorphosis, Medea later becomes the step-mother of Theseus.
[ Back ]
Villon, Mallarmé, or Verlaine: François Villon (1431- c. 1463) is the pseudonym of François de Montcorber or François des Loges, one of the greatest French lyrical poets. He lived a wild life, spending time in prison and in exile from his native Paris. Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) was a French poet who, with Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), was an originator and leader of the symbolist movement in poetry.
[ Back ]
A Country Doctor: Sarah Orne Jewett's novel of 1884.
[ Back ]
muscular Christian: Thomas Hughes, (1822-1896), author of Tom Brown's School Days (1857) developed the concept of the muscular Christian. The 1913 Webster's dictionary defines the muscular Christian: "one who believes in a part of religious duty to maintain a healthful and vigorous physical state. T. Hughes. -- Muscular Christianity. (a) The practice and opinion of those Christians who believe that it is a part of religious duty to maintain a vigorous condition of the body, and who therefore approve of athletic sports and exercises as conductive to good health, good morals, and right feelings in religious matters. T. Hughes. (b) An active, robust, and cheerful Christian life, as opposed to a meditative and gloomy one."
[ Back ]
The Heavenly Twins: This novel by Sarah Grand appeared in 1893.
[ Back ]
Pendennis ... Mrs. Pendennis: William Makepeace Thackery (1811-1863) published Pendennis (1848-1850).
[ Back ]
Tennyson ... "Let ... this proud watchword rest / Of equal; seeing either sex alone / is half itself ...Purpose in purpose, will in will, they grow, ...:" See Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), "The Princess," Canto VII. (Research: Gabe Heller).
[ Back ]
Buffon ... devotion to one idea from which works of genius are born: George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707-1788) is supposed to have said, "Genius is nothing but a great aptitude for patience." A statement of this precise idea has not been found; help is welcome. However, John Henry, Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) has said in The Rise and Progress of Universities Chapter 16: "Great things are done by devotion to one idea." (Research: Gabe Heller)
[ Back ]
Le Plus Heureux des Trois: this comedy -- The Most Fortunate of the Three -- by Eugène Labich (1815-1888) and Edmond Gondinet (1828-1888) was first performed in Paris in 1870.
[ Back ]
Delmonico's: Delmonico's is an exclusive restaurant in New York City, as it was in the late 19th century. For further information, see Gilded City: Scandal and Sensation in Turn-of-the-century New York by M. H. Dunlop" (Research: Gabe Heller).
[ Back ]
duennas: A duenna is an elderly woman who acts as governess and companion to young ladies.
[ Back ]
Portrait of a Lady - Isabel Archer: Isabel Archer is the protagonist of Henry James's (1843-1916) The Portrait of a Lady (1881).
[ Back ]
portières: door curtains.
[ Back ]
faux ménage: the term would translate into English as a common-law marriage.
[ Back ]
le clocher: the steeple, referring to religious faith.
[ Back ]
humanitarianism of Tolstoi: Kenneth Lantz in Encyclopedia Britannica says of the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910): "His moral and social teachings have also altered the course of the 20th century. Spiritual and political leader Mohandas Gandhi applied Tolstoy's ideas of passive resistance to British rule and helped win India's independence. Gandhi's ideas, in turn, helped inspire clergyman Martin Luther King, Jr., in his struggle for racial justice in the United States. The most significant part of Tolstoy's legacy may be his defense of the individual personality and conscience in a world where these are under attack."
[ Back ]
Christ ... Behold my mother and my brethren: See Matthew 12:46-7.
[ Back ]
every-day trifles: Jewett's views of every-day work can be seen in several of her works, notably the essay, "Every-Day Work," and in the story, "An Every-Day Girl," among her uncollected pieces.
[ Back ]
Mme. de Staël ... A trifle makes or ruins happiness: Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker, Mme. de Staël (1766-1817) was a French novelist and literary critic. Information on the source of this quotation is welcome.
[ Back ]
Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.